smoke and mirrors #4

Hey all, it has been a while since we’ve done one of these design posts and seeing as how behind the scenes we’ve been doing a lot of design work lately, it seemed like as good a time as any to do another one of these posts.

Game design and creative direction is mostly about coherent communication of ideas. One of the main questions that we’ve been trying to answer - and agree upon a clear understanding - is how we’re going to handle some of the dungeon crawling elements of our game, along with the team mechanics.

It is a Matter of Perspective

Role playing games have used many different perspectives over the years to enable dungeon crawling thematically, and mechanically. Over the years there have been many different approaches to perspective for role playing games, classic dungeon crawlers of yesteryear such as The Bard’s Tale series used a primitive 3D viewport, where the Ultima series was viewed from above. The Diablo and Baldur’s Gate Series’ exploited an isometric approach, and more recently we’ve seen a trend towards immersive first person and third person perspectives.

Role playing games have tried them all. I’m sure everyone has their own personal favourite, but thematically - based off of experience it didn’t take us very long to conclude that 3rd person perspectives weren’t going to work for the mood we want to capture.

The reasons for this are centred around the concept of atmosphere. We’ve always liked the idea that a dungeon crawl should be a slow methodical thing, somewhat of a holdover from pen and paper games, where disaster and death could be around the next corner. That general oppressive atmosphere and sense of unease is the method whereby we wish to immerse the player into the world. The examples we could initially think of that achieve this in a third person sense were few and far between (if anyone has any suggestions please feel free to let us know) and the best examples we thought of that elicited this response from a player were predominantly from first person perspective, pretty much every game made by frictional is a great example of this (the atmosphere in amnesia is so thick you could probably spread it on toast).

So with this knowledge in hand, we quickly deduced that first person perspective was the best way to achieve the results for our dungeon crawling thematically, which leads to our next question - how to tackle this mechanically.

Through the Eyes of the Beholder

We’ve seen many examples over the years that actually tackle first person gameplay within role playing games - we knew only one thing for certain - we wanted to avoid action elements and keep these mechanics rooted in mechanics which aren’t based on of the players manual dexterity.

So we compiled together a list of games which offered interesting mechanical options for us to begin with and attempted to answer - how to make the combat engaging, and how to deal with a team of characters allowing for tactical gameplay.

We looked at a series of games which we thought applied directly to what we were attempting to achieve mechanically:

  • Hired Guns

  • Wizardry 8

  • Realms Of Arkania: Blade of Destiny

  • Phantasy Star IV

  • Ultima Underworld

  • Whale's Voyage

  • Might & Magic: World of Xeen

  • Legend of Grimrock

So why choose these games? In short, we wanted to answer several mechanical questions, movement, combat, and visual layout.

  • Should our game use grid based movement? Or should we allow free movement?

  • How should we deal with combat and entities within the world?

  • Should we chain the characters to a singular perspective? Or create multiple viewports?

There were route questions that we wanted to communicate to each other and begin discerning how we could achieve them in a modern game.

Hired Guns

From a perspective of movement, the grid-based element here was displayed in all it’s 90’s glory, it is easy to achieve a more aesthetically pleasing method of transition in modern games, but maintain the grid-based nature. Combat takes place in real-time and is basic.

The interesting element for us was the fact that you have control over four separate characters simultaneously. During single play, you can chain the characters together in a follow the leader manner.

The split screen would probably work extremely well in multiplayer, however as we were playing it in single player, seeing as we could only ever take action with only one character out of four at any one time, we felt that having split screen and real-time combat would be a poor choice. Once we started the second level, we were immediately set upon by alien rat monsters and poisoned and then had one of our team members pushed into a lake to be eaten by sharks within the first five seconds. This chaos, while great, isn't something we particularly wanted to bring over.

With this method of play, you’re completely unable to divert your attention to the potential of the multiple scenarios that can be happening simultaneously, and thus, focus is completely lost, and the amount of visual, and mechanical noise is extremely disengaging.


Wizardry 8

The main feature that Wizardry 8 deals with that we’re interested in is a combination of freedom of movement, and turn-based combat and how they gel mechanically.

Free movement definitely helps engage the player in a more immersive fashion, it’s something that definitely can work - and as all the characters are chained together there is no extra viewport handling. The interesting matter is how the “team” is dealt with when a combat encounter occurs, it’s poorly defined by the UI, but you do have some control over the party positioning in relation to the enemies.

The system itself isn’t ideal, but it does work in a rudimentary sense. Wizardry 8 definitely makes a very good argument for free movement in a turn-based setting.


Realms Of Arkania: Blade of Destiny

Primarily we looked at RoA for one specific feature, we were curious about how it managed the ability to split the party - a seemingly innocuous mechanic, that is implemented in a very simple way, you choose who joins the new group, and when that or those characters are selected you move them on a grid and view the world from their location.

It’s a simpler and less cluttered way to deal with splitting the party than what appears in hired guns, and the most likely method that we’d use to do such a thing functionally.


Phantasy Star IV

Phantasy Star IV bears very little resemblance to how we’re trying to portray our game, but it did give us a quick look into how simple combat could potentially be - the transition between exploration and combat, meaning combat, in essence, takes place on a static screen which displays the enemies, and takes place through a number of menu options is a functional solution, if not a preferred solution to the issue of combat.

Tactics in this manner come from the actions that you choose, and who you choose to enact upon, in opposition to the physical placement of characters themselves.


Ultima Underworld

Ultima Underworld in this context is really about how far to take the concept of free movement, swimming, and jumping all make an appearance here, and despite its archaic look and feel it doesn’t an exceptional job at creating an immersive experience for the player.

Sadly, the real-time combat isn’t really worth experimenting with for us.


Whale’s Voyage

As with many of the games we looked at, the combat really wasn’t worth investigating, primitive mouse clicks just weren’t ever on the cards for us, and that in essence boils down to a clickfest.

The grid based movement was as expected, and primarily what we gained from looking at the game was unrelated to answering our core questions.


Might & Magic: World of Xeen

Might & Magic is a staple dungeon crawler, that has one interesting mechanic outside of its grid based movement, the game is consistently turn based when playing, moving a square, in essence, allows any monster in the world to likewise move a square, attacks are met with attacks. This means that the game plays as fast as the player is playing.

It’s an interesting approach which allows for the player to take as long as they’d like to make a decision. This method of play most definitely feels like a compromise between real-time and turn-based play.


Legend of Grimrock

The Legend of Grimrock is one of a few updated attempts at the old dungeon crawl formula. Grid based movement works, and coupled with smooth transitions between cells manages to stay far more immersive than older dungeon crawlers. As a game, it makes a great argument for grid based movement in a modern setting, but the real-time combat in many respects is slightly ajar when you couple it with this style of movement. Further acting as an argument against the inclusion of real-time combat mechanics within our game.


So having spent a fair bit of time taking a look at these particular games, we are left with some whole new questions. Questions that can be only answered by prototyping the mechanics ourselves.

  • Combat System?

    • In world turn based.

    • Phase-based.

    • Static screen turn based.

  • Free or grid?

    • Can these world during turn-based combat with a split part?

    • Which works best for exploration?

    • Which works best for combat?

The only real question we managed to get a downright answer for was that we’d definitely not be experimenting with multiple viewports, for multiple characters.

So the next step for us is simply to build a prototype for each of these systems and see how they play out with a simplistic ruleset, which is the most fun, and which provides the style of play we feel best suits our game.

Ín part two of this entry, we’ll take a look at our implementations and try an answer this question.



-The Wickerman



Author: The Wickerman Published:

2 responses to "SMOKE AND MIRRORS #4"


I hope Chris will code in some cheats for losers like me ;) I have a hard time with very hard tactical games, hehe


I like the sound of this!

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